Dealing with the China threat: Why New Delhi must urgently craft a long term strategy to win good friends

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Secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s announcement, on June 25, that the US will move some troops from Europe to Asia to counter expansionist China’s threat to India and Southeast Asian countries, raised questions about India’s long-term ‘friends’ and ‘interests’ as it took part in a virtual trilateral with Russia and China (RIC) on June 23. Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov voiced the respect of all three countries for the UN Charter, but they seemed to be strange acquaintances. Given China’s recent intrusion into Ladakh and its claims to Indian turf, Lavrov’s statement that they were against the illegitimate use of force and foreign interference in the domestic affairs of countries sounded odd.

Uday Deb

Yet Moscow, like Washington, favours a peaceful bilateral solution to the Sino-Indian dispute. And both India and China have rejected US mediation to end their conflict. Simultaneously, Russia and China challenge the US and its anti-China concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’. Believing that its prestige is enhanced by that concept, India favours it and has also joined the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes the US and two of its allies, Australia and Japan.

Does this tangled web of key relationships imply that India is maximising its diplomatic options? Perhaps not. The recent Sino-Indian border clashes make it look like a juggler who has dropped his Chinese ball and never knows whether he can catch the Russian one.

Meanwhile, does the juggler pay enough attention to his American ball? India has bought $18 billion worth of US arms over the last 20 years. But 56% of India’s arms come from Russia, which is America’s ‘other’ foe, after China. So there will be limits to stronger strategic ties with the US. America will simply not transfer sensitive military technology to India. On his official trip to India last February, President Donald Trump advised that the US should be India’s premier defence partner.

Trump hailed the $2.6 billion helicopter deal between the two countries. But that is less than half the amount India will pay Russia ($5.6 billion) to buy the S-400 missile system. Moreover it bought $14.5 billion worth of Russian arms in 2018-19 alone.

At another level, Russia, like all arms vendors, sells its wares to rivals. It has sold the S-400 missile to both China and India. But New Delhi should pay more attention to the global implications of the China-Russia “comprehensive strategic partnership”. First, they are united against their common enemy – the US. Second, joint Sino-Russian naval drills in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas (in 2015 and 2017 respectively) and in the Indian Ocean in 2019 have established China’s claim to be a European and Indian Ocean power. Indo-Russian strategic ties are nowhere as close.

Third, compared to China, India offers Russia little trade. 13% of Russia’s exports go to China, 1.7% to India. 22% of its imports come from China, 1.4% from India.

On the other side of the strategic fence, India’s logistical agreements with the US and Australia give each country access to the other’s military bases but they do not imply an alliance, which entails binding commitments. Understandably, the US invests much more in far stronger military and economic ties with its allies than with India. More American troops in Asia will not change that.

Economic and military prowess are intertwined, so it is unfortunate that India’s trade and investment policies are sticking points in its ties with the democratic US and European Union. America continually complains about India’s restrictive trade practices and has cut off its tariff-free access to the US market under the Generalised System of Preferences. Meanwhile a free trade agreement with the EU remains stalled because Brussels holds that India fails to provide a sound, transparent, non-discriminatory and predictable regulatory and business environment to European investors.

If India is looking for alternatives to economic dependence on China in key areas including telecom and pharmaceuticals, it could find some of them in Western democracies and Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. So New Delhi should not dismiss their complaints out of hand.

Indeed, it could be asked whether India’s increased economic dependence on China under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been caused, at least in part, by New Delhi’s indifference to the investment problems faced by friendly countries, while ‘opening an investment sesame’ to China, whose aggressive intentions it has misjudged. 14% of India’s imports come from China, 5.4% of its exports go to China. Germany buys 2.7% of India’s exports and provides India with 2.6% of its imports. The only democracy with which India has more trade than with authoritarian China is the US, which buys 17% of India’s exports and supplies it with 7.4% of its imports.

India needs to show how its strategic and economic needs and interests converge with those of friendly countries. As China and the US reshape Asia’s geopolitics, India’s friends are more likely to aid its rise if it crafts long term strategies and shows resolve in building a well-functioning economy through efficient governance. New Delhi should also show sound judgment in distinguishing between demanding friends and a territorial spoiler. That will certainly be to its advantage and shore up its world standing.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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